Children as Fruit for Death
However we understand the soliloquy of Romans 7, I think a strong case can be made for the interpretation that Paul's theme in this chapter is sexuality and redemption from it, as from the flesh through Christ's crucifixion, which make possible the crucifixion of the flesh in everyman. Paul opens chapter 7 with the analogy of the married woman whose husband dies:
Do you know brethren—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only during his life. Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives; but if her husband dies she is discharged from the law concerning her husband. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies she is free from that law, and if she married another man she is not an adulteress. Likewise, my brethren, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. (7:1–4)
This parable or analogy has often been regarded as clumsy by even the most friendly of Pauline interpreters. Typical is Stephen Westerholm: “The analogy is not the most perspicuous in the literature” (1988, 206). The problem with the analogy is that Paul's parable is of a woman no longer subject to the law of adultery because her husband has died, but its application is about one who is no longer married because she herself has died. There seems to be a lack of fit. This slippage between parable and application is, however, rather typical of the parabolic structure. In the parable itself, which refers to actual human life, obviously it is the husband who must die, for otherwise his wife could not remarry. However, in the application of the parable, the Christian reality, within which, as Paul argues in chapter 6, the believer dies to one kind of life and is reborn to another, even within this world and this body, the wife through dying becomes released from her obligations to her former husband and is free to marry again. Christians, having died to their first husband, the Law, are brides of Christ, married to him, in order that they may bear fruit for God. It is indeed the Christian who dies to the Law—not the Law which dies—, but the result is equivalent to the Law having died in that the Christian is no longer an adulteress if she does not live faithfully to the Law but joins herself only to Christ.
The parable's erotic overtones, moreover, are not accidental but absolutely crucial, on my reading, to the whole context, for what has died to the Law is the fleshiness, the being in the flesh, which required the pursuit of an act which bore fruit not for God but for death. The choice of the marital analogy is exact, because being tied to the Law meant the obligation to marry and bear children that the Law enjoins in its command to be fruitful and multiply. No longer married to the Law, since they have died to the flesh—meaning both the fleshly, literal meaning of the commandment and the use of the flesh that it implies and enjoins—, Christians belong to Christ—sexually, as it were, so that as his brides they bear “fruit for God,” spiritual children.
Romans 7:5–6 repeat this precise argument in nonparabolic language:
When we were in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.
ὅτε γὰρ ἦμεν ἐν τῇ σαρκί, τὰ παθἠματα τῶν ἀμαρτιῶν τὰ διὰ τοῦ νόμου ἐνηργεῖτο ἐν τοῖς μέλεσιν ἡμῶν, εἰς τὸ καρποφορῆσαι τῷ θανάτῳ. νυνὶ δὲ κατηργήθημεν ἀπὸ τοῦ νόμου ἀποθανόντες ἐν ᾧ κατειχόμεθα ὥστε δουλεύειν ἡμᾶς ἐν καινότητι πνεύματος καὶ οὐ παλαιότητι γράμματος
These verses raise several questions: (1) What is the meaning of being “in the flesh”? (2) What is the connection between that fleshly condition and being under the Law? (3) Why does the Law arouse sinful passions? (4) How is being freed of the Law going to prevent the arousal of sinful passions?
There is, in effect, a single answer to all of these questions. Paul speaks of a situation in which “we were still in the flesh,” which is the antithesis to having died to the Law. In other words, then, being in the flesh is equivalent to being alive to the Law. This is best understood if “the flesh” is taken to refer to the letter of the Law together with all of its associated fleshinesses: generation and filiation. Being alive to the Law, that is, serving in the old being of the letter—Be fruitful and multiply—, arouses sinful passions in our members to bear fruit for death, that is to have children and thus to participate in the whole disaster of human mortality. In the new life of the spirit, however, even that most fleshly commandment to procreate will be understood in its spiritual sense, namely, as a commandment to spiritual procreation, to that which bears fruit for God and not for death.
Serving under the old written code includes the positive commandment to be fruitful and multiply—the very first commandment in the Torah—, as well as the first negative commandment not to desire (Paul's midrashic gloss, on my hypothesis, on being forbidden to eat of the fruit). Prescribed procreation leads inevitably to forbidden sexuality, and the whole process to the bearing of fruit for death. It is no wonder that Paul, given this set of assumptions, will speak of the law in the second part of Romans 7 as presenting an impossible dilemma, indeed a double bind. Do have sex, in order to bear children, but do not have desire. Dying to the law through the body of Christ relieves one of the obligation to produce children—“fruit for death”—and thus frees one to bear only spiritual fruit, fruit for God.